By JOHN GORALSKI
In his third day of competition, Anthony Thibeault found himself kneeling at the edge of a green, measuring an ‘impossible’ putt at Willows Run Golf Course in Redmond, Wash. The green seemed to twist and heave like a stormy sea on its way to the distant hole.
“My partner had a good tee shot, right on the green,” he told us. “He left me about 40 feet away from the hole.”
“It was about 45 feet away,” said his partner, Dale Akerley.
Thibeault smiled. “Even for pros, they can’t do that,” he said.
Of course, on Wednesday, July 4, Thibeault made it look easy. He stepped to the ball with confidence and showed fans why he was Connecticut’s top golfer at the Special Olympics USA Games. The ball wound its way across the green and came to rest within a foot of the hole.
“I had the right speed. I had the right read on the green and the ball direction,” he said. “I almost birdied the hole.”
Thibeault is no stranger to competition. A member of Southington High School’s Class of 1998, he has been competing in Special Olympics for over 22 years. He started with basketball, switched to soccer, and tried his hand at volleyball, bowling, softball, and golf.
Along the way, he’s collected over 40 medals, including three gold medals in golf at the Connecticut state meet. That’s what earned him a shot at the national competition this month.
And he made the most of it.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “What a great feeling. I finally reached my goal to compete with the big boys.”
The USA Games featured 14 sports and drew 10,000 volunteers, 10,000 family members, and 70,000 spectators. An Olympic village was set up at the University of Washington dorms, and it was touted as the biggest sporting event to hit the Seattle area in more than 25 years, as they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics movement.
“When I got off the plane, they told me that it was going to be the time of my life, but they didn’t tell me how big it was going to be. People greeted us at the gate when we came in, and they were giving all of us high fives,” he said. “It was so overwhelming. It hit you like bricks. I had tears in my eyes, and you couldn’t believe the atmosphere. Everyone was wishing me good luck—all strangers that we didn’t know.”
Thibeault wasted no time introducing himself to Olympic fans. Right after the July 1 opening ceremonies, the Southington star represented Team CT in the ESPN-Special Olympics Unified Sports Challenge. Thibealt anchored a team that was sponsored by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE) and included retired Seattle Supersonics basketball player Gary Payton.
Fifteen teams competed in activities from hot shot basketball, penalty shot soccer, electronic dance game, bocce, inflatable dart board, football accuracy challenge, giant memory game and golf putting to earn prize money to donate to the games. Thibeault led his team to fourth place overall, and the team donated $5,000 as a result of his efforts.
But it was on the golf course that Thibeault made the biggest splash. Thibeault and Akerley alternated shots, competing over nine holes for three days in a row. The pair combined for a 50 in the first day, fell to the middle of the pack with a 52 on day two. But the third day, including that 45 foot putt on the eighth green, pushed the Southington star into medal contention.
Thibeault and Akerley’s 48 on day three was one of the lowest rounds of the tournament.
Samuel Irvin from Alabama scored 147 over three days, along with his partner Randy Meeks, to tie for the gold in the level 2 competition with Corin Shields of California and partner John Shields. Julia Phillips from Maryland partnered with James Bourdon for the bronze medal.
In their first national competition, Thibeault and Akerley finished fourth in the nation. They came within three shots of the gold medal and one shot from silver. Akerley credits his partner’s ability to drive the ball and the way Thibeault embraced the competition.
“His enthusiasm and joy is such a great thing to be a part of, and his improvement over the years has been tremendous,” said Akerley. “He hit some great shots and put us in nice spots to score low. We’ve won gold in state games two years in a row, and we competed with the best in the United States.”
“I was happy with the way I played,” said Thibeault. “I kept the best for last. I’m a competitor, and I won’t back down.”
So what’s next for the Southington star? He plans to get back to work for another run at a national title. If he can earn two more state titles, he’d earn another shot at the national competition in four years. Don’t count him out.
“I’m gonna relax about it. I’m going to enjoy this moment, and I’m going to compete,” he said. “I have no plans on retiring. I’m still young.”
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.